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Recently, I figured out that I was playing basic Dungeons & Dragons for mainly nostalgic reasons. I do like the game and I have great fun playing it with my gaming group, but I’ve recently started to drift away from the system and I’ve been looking at more story-driven games. Oh, it’s easy to play a D&D game and have it story driven but the mechanics don’t really support it, and if the gaming group isn’t on the same page it can be difficult to do such a thing.
So, this game has come around at a good time for me. I wanted to do more story-driven and dramatic games but the group was loathe to drift away from a system they like to play, and 13th Age pretty much covers both those bases.
The hardback 320-page colour rulebook is impressive. It’s robust and hardy and I’ve always liked a book that’s bound in such a way that you can lay it out on the table so that it sits nicely at the required pages, without having to weigh down the edges of the book or crack the spine. The glossy pages are in an easy-to read font, very clear and concise. It’s a very well laid out book with some really good artwork – I can find very little to criticise about the presentation. The cover image alone certainly made me want to play, and the full colour maps on the inside of the covers are quite exciting, to be honest, as it immediately opens a whole new world to game in.
Chapter 1, ICONS, details the great influential characters of the game. They’re there to lead certain factions and areas present in the constant power struggle that envelopes the land, and the relationship between the Icons and the player characters unfolds the world is shaped. This means that player characters aren’t simply gaming in the world, they’re helping to shape it as they interact with, defy or aid the Icons.
Chapter 2, CHARACTER RULES, is the character creation part of the game. It’s what you already know about the D&D game with some changes to suit this particular incarnation. You can roll for or point-buy character stats which gives players greater control over the abilities of their characters. There is no skill list but a general background description that a player is allowed to choose via a points system, so you could choose something like ‘Wild Mountain Tribe’, and this will enable skill checks to be modified should the PC encounter anything to do with mountains, such as survival or climbing rolls. Skill rolls are made by Rolling D20 + relevant ability modifier + level + the number points in a relevant background versus a difficulty number set by the environment. It’s a neat skill system that doesn’t let a player simply choose a skill they feel they might need, but makes them consider why they are skilled in that area and maybe even add a bit of detail or flavour to the history of the character.
You’ve got plenty of Feats to choose from, too. General Feats, which everyone can choose form, Racial Feats for your chosen race and Class Feats for your chosen profession.
Characters progress from level 1 to level 9. Starting as a level 1 Adventurer, once they reach level 5 they become a level 1 Champion, and get plenty of extra benefits. Upon reaching level 8 they become a level 1 Epic character, with even more benefits. As the levels grow, so does the drama…
My favourite party of the chapter, probably the entire book, is the ‘One Unique Thing’ section and this is what moves the game from a simple set of rules for moving playing pieces around to a much more story-driven game. It not only gives the players an impetus to heavily participate in the unfolding drama of the game but it can also help create a detailed, dramatic background for their characters. The One Unique Thing cannot influence or change abilities or rolls and it cannot give the player any benefits that might influence skills. It has to be something that will give them a specific trait or quirk and it will, through the story as the game progresses, create a larger, possibly world-changing plot device that the GM can weave using the Unique Thing about the player character. It enables story hooks and plot paths that directly affect, and can be directly affected by, the PCs. This helps build drama, suggests the relationships with the Icons and how they can be handled, and allows players to set their character apart not only from the normal people of the world but also from other heroes. Players really can create their own ‘special snowflake’ of a character and the game encourages them to do so.
There are plenty of examples in the book but I’ll use one that one of my players used while I was running this game. His One Unique Thing was ‘Lost in the eyes of the Emperor’s favourite’. Quite simply, this meant that he had fallen in love with a lady in the court of the Emperor who the Emperor himself loved. As the player was also a devotee of the Emperor and had already blood sworn his service to him, making him very close to the Icon and resulting in a barely suppressed father/son relationship, you can see why this would create some incredible drama later on. Maybe the PC decides to elope with her. Maybe she desperately tries to make him love her as she loves him but he denies her because of his duty to the Emperor, making her desperately bitter and making her vengeful. Maybe they meet in secret and the Emperor finds out… who knows what will happen? The actions of the player will help decide, so even though I’ve already had thoughts as to where the story could go it becomes very much a collaborative effort on both mine and the player’s part. I think it’s a fantastic inclusion and will make for some seriously excellent melodramatic roleplaying opportunities.
The rest of the chapter provides some very simple goods and equipment lists and some excellent advice for players to really get into their roles.
Chapter 3 details the playable RACES of the game; Human, Dwarf, Dark Elf, High Elf, Wood Elf, Gnome, Half-Elf, Half-Orc and Halfing. As the Icons are scattered across the alignment board from Lawful Good to Chaotic Evil it gives you plenty of scope as to what kind of race to choose. There are some guideline for optional races, too, and these are Dragonic/Dragonspawn, Holy One/Aasimar, Forgeborn/Dwarf-forged, and Tieflings/Demontouched.
Chapter 4 deals with the CLASSES; Barbarian, Paladin, Fighter, Cleric, Sorcerer, Rogue, bard and Wizard. This gives you the details of each class, the base stats, level progression details, gear, abilities and tier talents from Adventurer to Champion to Epic. It also includes the spell lists for the relevant magic-user classes. There’s some very nice flavour in here and, for the first time ever, it made me want to play a Bard. I honestly can’t tell you why; it just looked kind of cool.
Chapter 5, COMBAT RULES, is a simplified and streamlined version of the general D&D combat rules. It still suffers from a little of the problems I feel that D&D combat suffered from and that’s the switch from story game to conventional dice-rolling wargame; for me that’s a slight shock to the system as the flow of the roleplaying is interrupted for lots of dice rolling, but there’s plenty of options that you can do with or without. I found that by stripping combat back and asking players to describe hard hits, killing blows or their reactions to being severely injured helped. This honestly depends on the group and how they like to play, but it’s a good system and it’s what you’d expect from D&D.
Chapter 6 is all about RUNNING THE GAME, and this details Icon Relationships and how they can affect the character and the story, how to run the three different tiers of play, advice on traps, environments and levelling, campaigns, treasure and magic items, and the gaming world in general. This is all very good support material to help in running a game and there’s some good advice on how to make the game your own.
Chapter 7 is the MONSTERS section and here you’ll find all your monster rules and stats. There’s plenty of beasties here that’ll keep you going in adventures and encounters for months. The statistics are wonderfully simple, literally a title, a few lines of description, stats in the nature of Level, Initiative, Attack and Armour Class, Defences and Hit Points. If it needs them there are also some special rules for magic or special abilities, and that’s pretty much it. The monsters have symbols and icons to represent them; I’m a bit of an old-school gamer and I like to have proper illustrations next to my monsters so that I can hold them up to show my players, but the monsters are your generic fantasy beasts so there should be no difficulty.
There’s a cool little section for DIY monsters, too, so you can create your own foul beasties.
Chapter 8 tells you all about THE DRAGON EMPIRE, the lay of the land and the primary points of interest. This is the default setting of the 13th Age but, as with D&D in general, you can set it wherever you want. However, the realms of the Icons of the 13th Age are detailed here and it’s all filled with flavour. The maps really make me want to explore this place and adventure in the uncharted areas of the realms, both as a player and a GM. It’s a general fantasy setting open to plenty of modification by the GM and the gaming group, if they so wish. There’s also the potential for different kinds of gaming; high adventure, horror, warfare, grim and dirty, politics… the game allows for all kinds of adventure styles.
Chapter 9 gives us MAGIC ITEMS, to both help and hinder the player characters. I’m not sure why this wasn’t included in Chapter 2 along with the equipment but I guess there’s plenty of stuff in here to warrant a section of it’s own.
Finally, Chapter 10 is the introductory adventure BLOOD & LIGHTNING. It helps to introduce the Icon relationship and combat systems, which is great for gamers who are new to it, but it is otherwise a standard cover-all-the-beginner-points adventure for level 1 player characters.
The book is rounded out by a character sheet, an index and glossary, and some charts and tables.
First things first – I think this is a great game. It’s wonderfully presented, colourful, full of flavour and brimming with great ideas that can not only work for 13th Age game but pretty much any roleplaying game, D&D or otherwise. I like the Icons idea as they can add some seriously good depth to the game, and even though it’s only a small part of the game I really like the background skills as it adds even more depth to characters. The proof of the pudding is, though, the One Unique Thing that defines a character and makes them special. This can create all kinds of fantastic discussions around the table regarding the events that led up to the One Unique Thing and the possible repercussions. These conversations alone can spark the imagination and inspire GMs to come up with adventures, plots and courses of action they may not have otherwise even considered. Not only that but these One Unique Things can affect not only the adventure or the campaign but the world as a whole as the Icon relationships unfold, change and progress. It makes for some great roleplaying and allows interesting and creative collaboration between the GM and the players. Usually I’d steer my players away from creating a ‘special snowflake’ of a character. In many ways this game encourages it without compromising the game or the group.
I could see this system being used in any of the D&D settings; Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, any of them. If you want to use the One Unique Thing idea in your existing D&D campaign world I see nothing that stops you from doing that. You will no doubt benefit from the other ideas and changes in the book, as well, so it’s worthy getting even if you’ve got an established D&D game on the go using your favourite interpretation of the system. It’s not simply tied to the world of The Dragon Empire or the rules in the 13th Age book.
The system is D&D and, even with the tweaks and changes they’ve made, it is how we all know it. In fact, I like the changes they’ve made and would recommend this even without the Icons or the One Unique Thing implementations. It’s still a great game in it’s own right and I find the system much more playable with enough detail to make the game feel very rounded and full but not too much to make it feel overly complicated. There is a feeling, however, that this game has been designed with experienced players in mind. Whenever I read a new game I always come at it from the perspective of a first-time roleplayer, a person new to the RPG hobby, and I never got the feeling that this really caters for gamers who have never picked up a roleplaying game before. It’s written as if the reader is already familiar with RPGs and D&D in particular.
Another thing I liked was the little snippets of personal out-the-game information and examples supplied by Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo. They give you insights into how to use the new ideas, how they used them in their games, and lots of other stuff besides. It’s very handy and work well as examples as to how to implement certain rules into your game. It’s handy, informative and makes the game feel very personal.
I can very highly recommend 13th Age, both as a general OGL D&D game – as the changes and streamlining of the rules is very good – and the new Icon and One Unique Thing rules make for an incredibly well put together story-driven system that marries narrative games with old-school roleplaying goodness.